The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
A Rabbi in the Wilderness
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
I was mildly apprehensive Saturday morning as I embarked on a walk in the woods with a rabbi. The cause of my concern wasn’t poison ivy, to which I seem to become more susceptible and allergic with each passing summer, or that she’d criticize me for not being a better Jew because Passover is the only Jewish holiday I celebrate. No, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to keep up.
Photo Credit: Bill Swersey
Rabbi Jamie Korngold, leading the Chatham Synagogue in a nature hike at the Schor Conservation Area.
Jamie Korngold isn’t just any rabbi, she’s the “Adventure Rabbi.” I neglected to ask whether she gave herself that title or if someone else did, and if there are other adventure rabbis, and if so how many. But self-anointed or not she’s earned the moniker both for her athleticism and her mission to use the outdoors to help Jews connect with their spirituality. “Let the Wilderness Awaken Your Judaism” announces a flier she gives out, inviting one and all to join the rabbi at a Rosh Hashana retreat in Winter Park, Colo. (“9,000 feet closer to God”), a Yom Kippur stroll in Boulder where she lives most of the year and leads a 300-member congregation (mostly outdoors), and Shabbat hikes on several summer weekends; even “Shabbat on Skis.”
Rabbi Korngold was on the East Coast vacationing at a friend’s farm with her daughters Ori and Sadie, visiting her parents, and leading the upstate Chatham Synagogue in a nature hike and Saturday morning services at the Schor Conservation Area—233 acres of forest, pond, a picnic area in Columbia County, and hopefully God’s presence.
I’d been invited by Bruce Shenker, a member of the congregation and a serious runner. A weekend doesn’t go by that Bruce isn’t testing his limits by entering some race or climbing some mountain buried in snow for the fleeting pleasure of telemark skiing down it. So I feared this was going to be one more exercise in heart-attack-flirting, cardiovascular extremism.
Fortunately, the majority of the congregation seemed not nearly as fit as Bruce or the rabbi. Also, she was carrying Ori on her back, so it was unlikely she was going to break into a run while leading Shabbat services.
The rabbi instructed us to form a circle and introduce ourselves—there seemed far more psychoanalysts than in the general population—then led us into the woods. “For many people their most spiritual moments are outdoors,” she explained, adding that she’s simply going where her congregants are. “They’re out here hiking and skiing. Instead of fighting it, why don’t we use the spirituality people experience outdoors as a springboard for the Jewish experience?”
I could relate to that and to something else the rabbi, the author of two books—”God in the Wilderness; Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi” and “The God Upgrade; Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition”—said at our first stop, a crossroads in the woods. “The most important thing in spirituality is stopping and noticing.”
I’m always amazed that when I go bird-watching I rarely spot any birds—at least at first. It’s not until I acclimate myself to the woods, get in sync with the rhythms of the forest, which requires a series of steps—among them stopping, listening, seeing, and obviously turning one’s smartphone to “quiet,” that the forest starts to unfold. I like to think of the time I spend in the forest as my synagogue, and it was nice to get some reinforcement from an actual rabbi.
I’m not sure what came first—Rabbi Korngold’s spirituality or her love of the outdoors, though they often go hand in hand—but her relationship to nature, at least when she was younger, seemed to burn far more calories than mine. “I was an ultramarathon runner,” she explained. “And I was the fourth-ranked telemark mogul skier in America.”
The news mightily impressed Bruce, probably as much as the rabbi’s religious training. Telemark skiing—a hybrid of cross-country and downhill—is challenging enough on groomed trails. Racing moguls is borderline suicidal. “Don’t ask me how my knees are,” the rabbi warned.
Apparently even more impressive was her finish in the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, an annual Colorado race where the competitors run 100 miles, climb to over 12,000 feet, and half fail to finish. The rabbi completed the course several years back in just under the 30-hour limit. “And she went to the hospital because she was so dehydrated,” her father, Robert Korngold, a teacher who was along on our hike, reported.
The altitude wasn’t an issue on our walk and the sky was cloudless. “Where does God dwell?” the rabbi asked, citing a question in a favorite Martin Buber story, as we emerged from the woods by the side of the Schor Conservation Area’s pond. “God dwells where you let God in. I can’t tell you what God is. You have to wrestle with that yourself. But I can tell you God dwells where you let God in.”
Our final stop was a shelter overlooking the pond where the rabbi handed out blue prayer books and led the congregation in services. She also addressed the challenge faced by weekenders, of which there seemed more than a few in attendance: If we equate nature with spirituality what are we supposed to do the rest of the week? Does God also exist on the “A” train or rushing to a business meeting along Sixth Avenue? Rabbi Korngold cited the humble biblical thorn bush. “No place is devoid of the divine presence,” she said, “not even a thorn bush.”
She returned to her admonition to take the time to orient oneself in nature, prayer a good way of doing so. “I think of blessings as speed bumps,” she said. “They help me slow down. I say my blessings very quickly. But I say them.”